Long Defense of NYTimes's Israel Coverage Utterly Fails to Rebut 'Toxic' Critics

January 23rd, 2012 6:59 AM

Former New York Times reporter Neil Lewis last week defended the paper’s history of Israel coverage in a 6,500-word article posted at The Columbia Journalism Review (with a longer one to follow in a Harvard publication next month): “The Times and the Jews --A vocal segment of American Jewry has long believed that the paper has been unfair to Israel. Here’s why – and why they’re wrong.”

Lewis, a veteran reporter who retired in 2009, is now part of The Constitution Project, which focuses on the alleged ‘erosion of privacy rights and civil liberties in a post-9/11 world” and “indefinite detention without charge of terrorism suspects.” That marks Lewis as a man of the left, as did his reporting for the Times, which included an amazingly slanted May 2008 look at the potential Supreme Court nominees of either Barack Obama or John McCain.

So it’s no shock that Lewis would disagree with pro-Israel conservatives who criticize the Times for an anti-Israeli slant. What’s odd is how weak his counter-evidence is. Lewis’s article (at least this "shorter" version) doesn’t fulfill its headline by showing how “American Jewry” is wrong; in fact it hardly tries, and often agrees with the paper's critics, as he does with a controversial Times investigation by Deborah Sontag defending the PLO's Yassir Arafat. It’s light on story analysis, concerned more with the personalities and foibles of the paper’s line of Jerusalem bureau chiefs and staff.

By contrast, Times Watch has long documented the paper’s hostility toward Israel, especially right-wing Zionists, and sympathy toward the Palestinian cause, by downplaying terrorist violence and refusing to label Hezbollah and Hamas as anti-Israel terrorist organizations. Just a sampling:

Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner characterized Jewish settlers as being on an “angry rampage,” words never used for Muslim rioters.

Bronner also bizarrely labeled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to America in summer 2011, which included a tense meeting with President Obama and a triumphant speech to Congress, a “failure.” The headline: "Israelis See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure." What Bronner evidently meant was "Some Liberal Israeli Newspaper Columnists See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure," which would both accurately summarize and signal the pointlessness of Bronner’s story.

Middle East reporter Neil MacFarquhar took the Palestinian side in an interview on the July 31, 2006 edition of Charlie Rose’s talk show, when he notoriously ranted about “Bush’s bombs” being rushed to help Israel at the height of Israel's war with the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah:

You saw those heart-rendering pictures in Qana yesterday after the Israeli air strike. And every one of the reports on the Arab satellite channels were saying, you know, this is American bombs that killed these children. And you know, I have lived in this region for a really long time, since I was a little boy, really. And if you talk to people my age, I’m in my mid-40s and who grew up in poor countries like Morocco, you know, they will tell you that when they went to school in the mornings, they used to get milk, and they called it Kennedy milk because it was the Americans that sent them milk. And in 40 years, we have gone from Kennedy milk to the Bush administration rushing bombs to this part of the world. And it just erodes and erodes and erodes America’s reputation.

Steven Erlanger described the “heroic history” of the late PLO terrorist leader Yassir Arafat on January 6, 2005.

Former Times Gaza reporter Taghreed el-Khodary told the left-wing online magazine Salon she considered her job was “to represent the Palestinian narrative, and I succeeded in that.” She called the anti-Jewish terrorist group Hamas “a reality on the ground” that needed to be engaged.

Yet even as Lewis actually admitted the paper’s coverage has gotten substantially tougher over time, he finds the idea that the Times has been unfair to Israel an “ill-founded – as well as toxic – notion based on misunderstandings of journalism, some lamentable history of the Times’s coverage of the Holocaust, and perceptions about the relationship of the paper and some of its forebears to their own Jewish heritage. It also ignores the changing political realities in the region.”

Lewis claimed to have surveyed “nearly three thousand articles in the Times about Israel over the decades from the 1960s to recent years,” but never got into the nitty-gritty of content analysis, content with interviews of Times editors and reporters who have covered the region.

Lewis credited Palestinian terrorism for raising journalistic consciousness:

Separate from all of these factors, there is another element, which cannot be ignored. Palestinian militant organizations, no match for the Israelis in conventional warfare, embarked on a campaign of terrorism, executing acts designed to be and which were, in fact, stunning.

What should and did shock the conscience – kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, blowing up buses filled with civilians, murder of a wheelchair-bound cruise-ship passenger – could also, perversely, stimulate the conscience about the underlying issue. Terrorism may be effective to some degree because those who are repelled by an act might simultaneously be made curious as to what could drive people to commit such horrifying deeds.

Some of Lewis’s report made the case for Times critics.

Deborah Sontag, who was in Jerusalem for the Times for almost three years starting in August 1998, remains the only woman to have served in the post. Her time there was, by all accounts, an unhappy one for her. She was the only one of several editors and former correspondents at the paper who declined outright to be interviewed about her experience. “I just can’t imagine that anything I have to say about the period would be illuminating,” she wrote, “and it may be troubling to me.”

Sontag had been well regarded at the Times for what Bill Keller, a former executive editor, described as “her vivid writing” which was often deployed to emphasize the human aspect of a story. But numerous people at the Times say that she did not feel fondly about Israel during her tour there and was stressed by the immediacy of the story and the intensity of the scrutiny of her coverage.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who has covered Israel and the Middle East for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, said her work, more than any other Times reporter’s, seemed to reflect that very liberal segment of America that has grown impatient with Israel, and skeptical of Israelis. “It represented an approach to Israel that is best seen these days on American universities,” he said.


Sontag’s most controversial piece was an unusually long (nearly five thousand words) analysis of why the July 2000 Camp David peace talks between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, midwifed by President Bill Clinton, did not yield a settlement. Published on the one-year anniversary of the talks’ failure, the article testily disputed the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian side was mostly at fault, that Arafat could not bring himself to cut a deal – perhaps because he was not made for negotiating peace after all his years of running a war operation or because he thought he would be discredited by hardliners.

Sontag’s article shifted a significant portion of the blame onto the Israelis and the Americans, and was a surprising departure from what most people believed at the time. It paralleled a minority view espoused in The New York Review of Books by Robert Malley, an adviser to President Clinton.


Since then, there has been further discussion and debate over the issue with new assessments of some miscalculations made by Israeli and American officials. But for the most part, correspondents and experts – even senior editors at the Times in private assessments – do not accept the view suggested in Sontag’s piece.

Lewis over-confidently stated that some “errors or misplaced emphases are inevitable” and “will be smoothed over in time and, for any fair analysis, coverage should be viewed as part of a larger thematic narrative.”

Again countering his story’s headline, Lewis admitted that critics of the Times have a point when it comes to the paper downplaying anti-Semitic invective among Arab media.

Another common theme of American Jewish supporters of Israel who criticize the Times is that the paper, and indeed most Western media, generally do not cover fully the range of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel invective that is depressingly common in parts of the Arab media and clergy.

The critics are frustrated by this and have a point. Newspapers generally have a difficult time in dealing with any repeated phenomena, like hateful speech. An individual article may cover the subject once, to lay out the general phenomenon. But it is generally impractical to write an article about each subsequent instance. Editors are then inclined to say that the initial article already covered the subject.

As a result, such outrageous comments recede into something akin to background noise. They may be deplorable but are not always deplored.